Sermon: Dirty Little Secrets

Sunday, June 19, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Second Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (readings start around 23:07; sermon starts around 30:28)

Our gospel reading for this morning brings us one of the greatest and best known stories from the life of Jesus: the healing of this man with the legion of demons.  Or – as our bishop-elect pointed out at text study this last Tuesday – you could also read this story as the biblical origin of deviled ham.

It’s a story with a lot of layers.  Jesus and his disciples have just sailed across the Sea of Galilee – through a storm, which Jesus calmed – and they’ve landed on the opposite side, in the country of the Gerasenes.  As they head toward the city, they walk by a cemetery, where they suddenly encounter a man tormented by demons, who lives chained up in the cemetery.  Jesus immediately goes to heal the man and – after some brief negotiations with the demons – he allows the demons to possess a herd of pigs, which immediately run into the sea and drown.  Super weird story so far.  But it gets weirder.  

The people whose ham just got deviled run back to the city and tell everyone what happened.  And then the people of the city run out to see for themselves – “and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they became frightened.”  It’s not the demons, or the snapped chains, or even the possessed pigs – it’s seeing this man healed and clothed and in his right mind that really freaks them out.  It’s only after Jesus frees this man from his demons that the people become afraid.  

Why?  Why is it only after this man’s liberation that the rest of the community suddenly becomes afraid?  What do you think?

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Sermon: Created By Love, For Love

Sunday, June 12, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Holy Trinity Sunday
watch this service online (readings start around 25:00; sermon starts around 30:09)

(reprise of an earlier sermon)

Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday – heh, if you’re on the team changing paraments, you know this as our one last white Sunday before a long season of green.  Today we celebrate the mystery of God, who is three-in-one and one-in-three: the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But before we dive in, I have a quick pop quiz!  Heh, it’s only one question long – but I rarely get the right answer.  Can anyone tell me: How many times does the word “trinity” actually appear in the bible?

It’s a trick question!  The answer is actually zero.  Despite how central the doctrine of the Trinity is to our faith, the word “trinity” never actually appears in the scriptures – not even once – which is kind of weird considering how much we use the language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to talk about God.  I mean, we even have whole congregations (and at least one seminary!) named for the Trinity!

So what gives?  We already have an entire book full of words about God – why was it so important for the church to add this one other word?

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Sermon: We Have No Idea What’s Coming for Us

Sunday, June 5, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Pentecost Sunday
watch this service online (readings start around 19:10; sermon starts around 26:36)

You might remember that last week, when we last left our friends the disciples, they were standing just outside Bethany: feeling confused and anxious, staring up into the sky and trying to wrap their brains around what just happened.  They were stuck in this strange, uncertain time of limbo without a clue of what would happen next.  Jesus had risen from the dead, which was good – and then he ascended into heaven, which was… weird.  He blessed them and he left them with this promise that he would send them an Advocate, a divine Spirit of power and truth.  But in this moment, these disciples had no idea what was coming for them; they just chose to trust in this promise that the Spirit would move.

Going into Synod Assembly over the last few days, there was a lot of this anxiety and uncertainty, particularly among clergy, and especially among my colleagues who work in the Synod office.  The election of a bishop is a big deal in the church, and Brian Maas is a tough act to follow, especially after a full decade of being bishop.  Ten years ago is when I first started discerning a call to ministry, right around the time Bishop Brian was elected, and for me he has been a constant presence, a mentor and supporter and someone I deeply admire all the way through my candidacy journey and into the parish – he has never not been bishop for as long as I’ve been in ministry.

I think it’s safe to say it was a very emotional assembly for pretty much everyone present.  There were lots of tears shed as we said our goodbyes to Bishop Brian and his wife Debbie. They weren’t all tears of sadness; many were simply tears of gratitude, thankful for these last ten years – and thankful that they will both be sticking around the synod.  And there was also celebration that Brian will be moving into a new call as the Vice President for Mission and Spiritual Care at Immanuel.  But there was still sadness, all the same. 

And there was a lot of anxiety about who would step into that role next.  I have so much love and respect for my colleagues in the synod, but those are some BIG shoes to fill – and not just because Bishop Brian is like eight feet tall.  The office of bishop demands an almost impossible constellation of gifts – as a pastoral caregiver, as an administrator, as a preacher, as a CEO, as an ambassador for the church, and more.  Nine candidates had allowed their names to go forward to take a chance at being bishop.  And we as an assembly gathered around them, praying for a Spirit of wisdom and discernment, praying for God’s will to be revealed to us.  As we gathered, we had no idea what was coming for us; but we chose to trust in this promise that the Spirit would move.

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Sermon: When Your Happy Ending Is More of an Ambiguous Middle

Sunday, May 29, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Ascension Sunday
watch this service online (readings start around 20:30; sermon starts around 26:42)

Whenever you crack open a bible, something you’ll likely notice as you read is that there are a lot of stories in the bible that get told multiple times in different ways.  Usually these stories are written by different authors, relying on different written and oral traditions, who are telling the story in a way shaped by their own particular communities and agendas and perspectives.  Usually.  Unusually, you get stories like the ones we read today.  Our readings for this morning include two different accounts of the ascension of Jesus, but – plot twist – both stories were actually written by the same guy: the evangelist Luke.

Insofar as the major details of what happened, both stories are pretty much the same.  But the tone in which they’re told is quite different.

The first time Luke tells the story of the ascension, it comes at the very end of the book of Luke, as he is wrapping up his gospel account.  And this version of the story has a very hopeful, feel-good kind of vibe to it.  It’s written as a happy ending: there is understanding and blessing; there’s joy and continual praise in the temple, and they all lived happily ever after, the end!

But then Luke opens the Book of Acts – which is basically the sequel to the Gospel of Luke – by telling the story of the ascension again.  Only this telling of the story doesn’t give off that same kind of happy ending vibe as the gospel version.  In this version, the disciples seem to be a lot more confused and troubled and anxious.  They assumed that they had gotten to the happy ending part with Jesus’ resurrection – and that the next logical step would be to raise the kingdom of Israel from the ashes and to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression – but now they don’t seem so sure.  

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What We’ve Got Is Good Indeed

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Acts 2:1-4

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”  There is some snarky, dad-joke-loving part of me that reads the beginning of the Pentecost story and thinks, “Wow, that’s amazing that they all knew to get together for a Pentecost celebration before they even knew Pentecost was going to be a thing!”* 

But of course, it wasn’t just coincidence that the first believers were all gathered in one place where the Holy Spirit could conveniently find them.  They were actually gathered to celebrate the Jewish Festival of Weeks, called Shavuot.  Shavuot is a celebration of the giving of the law to the ancient Israelites on Mount Sinai.  It takes place fifty days after the Passover – a week of weeks, plus a day – and “pentecost,” which comes from the Greek for “fiftieth,” takes its name from this fifty days, since Pentecost likewise occurs fifty days after Easter Sunday.  

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Sermon: The Bigger Picture

Sunday, May 22, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Sixth Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 13:41; sermon starts around 20:08)
r-e-c-y-c-l-e, recycle… ♻️

I spent this last week hanging out with other clergy friends at the Festival of Homiletics, the preaching conference I go to every year.  And it’s fairly easy to tell when I’ve been spending more time than usual with other clergy folks, because I notice that it affects the way I talk – I find myself using a lot of those five dollar words they teach us in seminary, words like: soteriology, kerygma, eschatology, exegesis, and so on.

One of these words that you might hear used by particularly nerdy preachers (like yours truly) is the word “pericope” (it looks just like the word “periscope” without the ‘s’).  Pericope is a word that’s sometimes used to talk about a section of scripture  – it’s basically like how we use the term “reading” or “lesson.”  The word comes from the Greek for “a cutting-out” – which kind of evokes this image of someone snipping out passages of scripture and then pasting them somewhere else.  

The group of people who put together the three year series of readings that we follow – the lectionary – are responsible for cutting out the texts that we read together each Sunday (kind of makes them sound like scriptural scrapbookers, haha).  Most of the time, it’s pretty obvious why they choose to cut texts where they do – perhaps there’s a story or a parable with a clear beginning and ending or a section all on the same theme.  But sometimes, like with our readings for today, the place they choose to cut something doesn’t make much sense to me at all.  

Like with this gospel reading especially.  The way it’s cut, we’re missing a lot of the context.  And without seeing the larger context that this piece is cut out of, it’s hard to tell where Jesus is even going with all the different things he says here.  He says some stuff about loving him and his Father and keeping their word, then he says some stuff about the Holy Spirit and some stuff about peace, and finally he hints at something bigger that’s about to happen.  

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Sermon: Christ Be Our Compass

Sunday, May 15, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 16:18; sermon starts around 23:16)

Have any of you ever heard of a game called Minecraft?  It’s a pretty popular game – you might even have kids or grandkids or students who play it, if you haven’t played it yourself.  My two younger siblings got me hooked on Minecraft during the height of the pandemic.  They’re usually a little more on the cutting edge of that kind of stuff than I am – but they like to find things that the three of us can play together, and Minecraft fit the bill.

And it’s actually a lot of fun!  Minecraft is what’s known as a “sandbox game”: you’re basically dropped into a digital world and given complete freedom to explore.  You go “mining” for all kinds of different resources; and you can then use those resources to make tools, or to construct a shelter, or really to build anything and everything you can possibly imagine.  

And it’s fun because there are lots of different ways to play the game.  If you want to fight your way through zombies and giant spiders and exploding monsters all the way to the big final boss and win the game, you can do that.  If you want to build a farm and raise sheep and grow wheat and steal chicken eggs to throw at your siblings, you can do that.  If you want to build fantastical palaces or underwater fortresses, or just explore and map the world as far as you can go, you can do that!

Personally, I like the creating and exploring the best.  Every Minecraft world generates randomly, so you never know what you’ll come across: perhaps a deep dark forest, or a barren desert, or a range of massive mountains overlooking a vast sea.  And the world is virtually limitless, so there’s always more to explore.  The one downside of this is that it is extremely easy to get lost.  There’s no real logic to the way different geographical features are arranged, so if you don’t remember the way you came, it can be nearly impossible to get back to where you started.  

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Sermon: Following Footprints

Sunday, May 8, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 14:32; sermon starts around 20:40)
image source

If you’ve ever found yourself feeling deeply confused or bewildered or even just plain lost, then there’s a very good chance that you have spent some time inside the Miami-Dade airport (lol).  During the years when I was living in the Dominican Republic, I used to spend a lotof time inside the Miami airport.  It was always the inevitable first stop I had to make anytime that I came home.  

Like most airports, the Miami airport is pretty sprawled out.  And especially since I came in on an international flight, it usually took a long time to get where I needed to go.  First I had to get through customs and immigration, and then I’d have to walk what felt like 500 miles from the far-flung terminal for international flights to get to the gate for my connecting flight.  It was pretty easy to get disoriented and lost along the way.

But I remember that the airport had these decals on the floor that were supposed to help you figure out where you needed to go.  They were shaped like footprints, and there were different colored trails of these footprints that promised to lead you to all sorts of places: one might lead you to baggage claim, another might lead you to the food court, still another might lead you to customer service or to a place where you could get a taxi, or to wherever else you might need to go inside an airport. 

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Sermon: More to the Story

Sunday, May 1, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 14:16; sermon starts around 23:56)

(You decide: Who preached it better – 2019 Day or 2022 Day? 😜)

Our gospel reading for this morning picks up right on the heels of our gospel reading from last week – which is a little bit odd, if you remember how that reading ended.  Last week, we read the story of “Doubting” Thomas (I hear Rick preached a pretty good sermon on it 😜).  This story comes at the very end of John chapter 20 and it ends with Jesus saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  And John then closes the chapter by writing:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:30-31

Now, that really sounds like it’s the end of the story, doesn’t it?  It sounds like it should be the end of the book of John.  All it’s missing is “and they all lived happily ever after.  The End.”  So it’s kind of surprising then to turn the page and find that the book of John actually goes on for a whole other chapter.  

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Sermon: The Joy of Unmet Expectations

Sunday, April 17, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Easter Sunday
watch this service online (readings start around 22:49; sermon starts around 29:02)

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!

This is the same joyful greeting that centuries of Christians have used to greet each other on Easter morning.  Because this is indeed a day of great joy!  For many of us, the joy of this day is pretty obvious – the joy of gathering with family, of seeing children and grandchildren, the joy of a time to rest and a time to celebrate with the people we care about.  And especially after these long years of wandering through the wilderness of a global pandemic, I know my own heart is full of joy at just being able to celebrate this day gathered here together.

But of course, the true joy of Easter goes much deeper than even these joys.  What we celebrate today is the fact that the fundamental order of the cosmos has been shifted.  There is now an empty tomb where a grave should have been.  There’s nothing but linens where a dead body should have been.  There is now life where death should have been.  Christ’s resurrection is the death of death itself.  And since we have been baptized into his death, we now live, filled with the hope that one day we – and all those we love – will also be raised with Christ to eternal life.  That’s more than enough to move us to cry out: Alleluia, alleluia!

Given the joyful nature of the day, though, it is a bit strange that this joy seems to be almost absent in our gospel reading for this morning.  This text from Luke is certainly full of many feelings, but joy isn’t really one of them.  Instead, the people in this reading move from grief to perplexity to outright terror to disbelief, and finally to amazement – which is really all the closer we get to actual joy in this text. 

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Have Mercy on Us

Every year we go through the great Three Days at the end of Holy Week, I find it speaks to me in different ways. Though I’ve heard these words a hundred times, each time I hear it, there’s some new detail, some new connection, that somehow makes the story new again.

At worship tonight, as I was reading the Passion story from John 18-19, a few verses near the end of chapter 19 grabbed my attention:

…they did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.

John 19:31b-33
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Sermon: Fully Known and Fully Loved

Thursday, April 14, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Maundy Thursday
watch this service online (readings start around 13:48; sermon starts around 21:48)

“I have set you an example,” Jesus says, “that you also should do as I have done to you.”  Love one another, just as I have loved you.  This commandment to love is the commandment that gives Maundy Thursday its name: “maundy” comes from the Latin word “mandatum,” which means “commandment.”  Jesus commands his disciples to love, and he makes his own love known by pouring out his body and blood for them as bread and wine.  On this night, he also shows his love for them by kneeling before each of them and gently washing their feet – setting the example for his followers to imitate.

A couple thousand years later, we are still doing our best to follow Christ’s example – still sharing in his body and blood at this table – and still gathering on the night in which he was betrayed to wash one another’s feet.  And I think it’s fair to say we still struggle with it as much as Jesus’ first disciples did.  

Be honest: did anybody come here tonight totally jazzed by the idea of doing some foot-washing?  Heh, yeah, I didn’t think so.  I imagine that you – like me – are pretty deeply uncomfortable with the whole idea of foot-washing.  Out of curiosity, which is more off-putting: the prospect of washing someone else’s feet, or the prospect of having to take off your shoes and socks and let someone else wash your own feet? I strongly suspect that it’s the latter.

It’s an uncomfortable experience all around, but especially uncomfortable to be on the receiving end.  And we’re in good company in our discomfort.  I mean, just look how Simon Peter reacts in our gospel reading!  He and Jesus and the other disciples are having a nice holiday meal together.  Then Jesus gets up, strips off his robe, and grabs a towel – and as Peter realizes what Jesus is doing, his reaction shifts from confusion to flat out denial (foreshadowing?).  Peter says: No way, absolutely not – you will never wash my feet.  

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Holy Week & Easter services

Looking for a place to worship this week? You’re more than welcome to join us at St. John’s! All of our services will be in person and live-streamed; details are below for our Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday services. All services are live-streamed from our public Facebook page (no need to have a Facebook account in order to watch); visit the Virtual Church page on our website for more info.

Wherever or however (or whether) you worship this week, I wish you many blessings and Easter joy! ☀️💐🌈✝️

Watch now!

Maundy Thursday: April 14, 6:30pm; in person and online
Good Friday: April 15, 6:30pm; in person and online
Vigil of Easter: April 16, 6:30pm; in person and online
Easter Sunday: April 17, 9:30am; in person and online

Retelling the Story

In the recent life of the church, there has been a renewed interest in one of the most ancient services/rituals of the church: the great Vigil of Easter. People gather — as they have done for millennia — around the lighting of a fire to tell stories. At the Easter Vigil, the stories we share are the stories of God’s saving acts of love, from the beginning of creation to the death and resurrection of Christ.

If you’ve ever attended a candlelight Christmas Eve service, there’s a lot about the Easter Vigil that may feel familiar. Held on the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday (since, biblically, the new day begins at sunset), the Vigil certainly has some similarities, a kind of “Easter Eve” service, if you will — though practices like remembering and creatively retelling parts of the story of Christ’s life, and even the lighting of small, handheld candles, actually originated with the Vigil of Easter.

There are a whopping fourteen readings appointed for the Easter Vigil service: twelve readings from the Hebrew scriptures, or Old Testament, a reading from Paul’s letters, and a gospel reading. At St. John’s, we usually do no more than six or seven of the readings total, which means a lot of really great stories get left out.

In my ruminations on how we could find some way to work these stories into our shared life of faith, I was blessed with one of those wild ideas the Spirit loves to come up with, and this is the result: a two week daily video series in which I read one of these stories each day, praying an accompanying prayer. The Spirit also gave me the goofy idea to do these videos in different places in and around the Schuyler community that are meant to somehow connect thematically to the text.

I’ll keep updating this list as I do more videos, but I wanted to extend the invitation to join me on this journey through the story — as together we make our way once again to Jerusalem, through the waving of palm branches, through the shadow of the cross, to the joyous news of the empty tomb.

Sermon: A Love Story

Sunday, April 10, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Palm / Passion Sunday
watch this service online (readings start around 12:35, 22:04; sermon starts around 41:37)

This is the story – the great story – the central story of our faith.  It’s the story that the church has been remembering and retelling in many and various ways for thousands of years, through wars, famines, floods, plagues, and even persecutions.  Like generations of the faithful before us, we follow Jesus on this Lenten journey to Jerusalem.  And no matter the circumstance – whether we are physically together or forced to be apart – the journey always leads us to the same place: here, at the threshold of Holy Week.

Today, we read the story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into the city of Jerusalem amid shouts of “Hosanna in the highest, hosanna!” – a cry that, in Hebrew, roughly translates to “Save us!”  And yet we read in the story how quickly this shouting turns into chants of “crucify, crucify him!”  We follow Jesus all the way from a stable in Bethlehem to the cross on a hill in Jerusalem – and beyond it, to the empty tomb.

It’s a story of violence and hope; a story of faithfulness and betrayal, a story of life and death – but above all, this extraordinary story is a story about love.  Jesus Christ is God, who chooses to be born among us as a human, and every moment he walks upon the earth is marked by love, especially in these last days.  With love, Jesus helps his grieving followers to understand what is coming; he tries to prepare his disciples for the mission they must undertake once he’s gone.  He even forgives those who betray and kill him as he hangs on the cross dying.  Jesus pours himself out freely for others, giving himself away like bread for the hungry.  He gives away his body and blood and even his very life out of undying love for the world.  

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Sermon: No Way! Way.

Sunday, April 3, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 17:00; sermon starts around 22:34)

When I was growing up, one of my all-time favorite action movies was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  For my money, it’s the best out of the original trilogy.  It’s an exciting movie: fighting Nazis, solving puzzles, finding clues – watching Sean Connery!  But looking back, even as a kid, I think one of the things I actually connected with most about the movie was its themes of faith – which, you know, looking back now as a pastor, makes a lot of sense!

In the movie, Indiana Jones is racing against the Nazis to find the Holy Grail – and for Indy, this becomes personal when the Nazis shoot his father and the Grail is the only thing that can save his life.  To reach the Grail, Indy has to face three challenges, all of which are related to faith in some way.  In the first challenge, he figures out just in time that he needs to “kneel before God” in order to avoid having his head sliced off!  In the second challenge, he figures out – after a brief misstep – that he needs to spell out the name of God in Latin: Jehovah (which, of course, we know in Latin starts with an “i”!).  

Indy’s cleverness and his obscure knowledge help him make it through the first two challenges unscathed.  But the third challenge is different.  In the third challenge, Indy has to cross a massive chasm, so deep and so dark that the bottom of it isn’t even visible.  Also not visible is any way to get across; it’s way too far to jump, and there’s no bridge across it, no ropes, no puzzle to solve, no traps to spring, no nothing.  Knowledge and cleverness won’t help him here; this challenge requires something more from him: a leap of faith.  He has to step off that ledge, trusting that God will reveal to him the way across.

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Sermon: Reconciled to Be Reconcilers

Sunday, March 27, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 18:40; sermon starts around 25:11)

The story that Jesus tells in our gospel reading for this morning is one I imagine you’ve probably heard before: the story of the “prodigal son.”  Even if it is really familiar, I’m curious to know what your reaction is to this story.  To ask the pastor-y question: How does it make you feel?

I’m curious because, in my experience, this is a story that tends to make people angry.  Or, at the very least, it’s a story that leaves people feeling frustrated because it feels unfinished – we’re left wanting to know what happens next in the life of this family, with these two brothers.  I think most of us see ourselves in this story; it reminds us of situations or relationships in our own lives, in a way that often leads us to kind of root for a particular character.  I mean, what could be more relatable than a story about family conflict?  There’s a reason the bible is absolutely full of them.

Most often, I find that people relate to the older brother in this story.  He seems like someone who is responsible, hard-working, and reliable – he probably files his taxes on time and has an excellent credit score.  He stays home on the farm and works diligently with his father to make a living.  By contrast, his younger brother goes to their father and demands that he be given half the family inheritance, right now.  He takes the money and splits, leaving behind the farm and his family to go blow his fortune on wild living in some far off place.  Eventually he comes crawling back home, after who knows how many years.  But instead of being angry with him or even demanding an explanation, their father throws this degenerate son a party!  Meanwhile, here’s this hard-working older son who’s been there for his father the whole time, but the minute this irresponsible younger son shows his face, dad kills the fatted calf and throws a feast!  It just doesn’t seem fair.  And sure, the younger brother says he’s sorry, but we never actually see if he really changes his ways because the story ends before we get the chance.

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Sermon: Handling It

Sunday, March 20, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 17:58; sermon starts around 24:36)

Whew!  Our readings for this morning are kind of all over the place – they run the gamut from an abundant feast of rich foods in Isaiah 🥘 to smearing manure on a tree 💩 in our gospel reading.  This is not an easy week to be a preacher!  But I’ll do my best. 😉

I wanted to at least take a stab at unpacking the text I find most challenging, which is our second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  Taken totally out of context like this, it’s hard to know what to do with a text like this one.  Paul’s words here about the Israelites who followed Moses almost sound like he’s threatening the Corinthians that they better shape up and get their act together, or else!  Not exactly the words of grace we’d expect.  But the most troubling part of this reading, for me, is the end of verse 13, where Paul writes: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”  

This is a verse that has often been taken out of context.  It’s been turned into a bit of popular theology you’re probably familiar with: the idea that “God will never give you more than you can handle.”  Have you heard that one?  On the surface, it sounds nice: God will never give you more than you can handle.  And I think it’s often meant as a compliment, as kind of a roundabout way of saying that someone is strong and resilient and capable of handling the struggles they’re facing.  

But the longer you think about it, the more troubling it gets.  Saying that God never gives us more than we can handle doesn’t sound quite as nice when you stop and consider some of the terrible things that people have had to “handle”: people born with painful and debillitating diseases, for example; children suffering abuse and neglect, families uprooted and torn apart by warfare and violence – like what we’re seeing right now in Ukraine – parents having to bury their children before their time.  The idea that any of these things are from God is disturbing, to say the least.  It makes you wonder what kind of sick god would create all these strong, gifted people only to put them through the wringer because “they can handle it.”

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This Is How You Stand

There is an excellent article written by Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor that has been making the rounds this week. She writes movingly about this week’s gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary, in which Jesus laments over Jerusalem, wishing he could gather her people like a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings. I quoted a lengthy chunk of the article in my sermon from this Sunday — but there was more I could have shared, so much more I would have liked to say if the sermon hadn’t gone in a different direction.

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Sermon: The Divine Art of the Deal

Sunday, March 13, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Second Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 17:22; sermon starts around 25:12)
image source

Most of us probably don’t think about it very often, but English is really kind of an odd language.  We have some strange ways of saying things that sound perfectly normal to us – until you stop to think about it for too long.  For example, when the weather’s bad and it’s absolutely pouring buckets outside, we often say it’s “raining cats and dogs.”  Why??  That’s so weird!  Or if we’re feeling sick, we might say we’re feeling “under the weather.”  Under the weather??  Like, when are you not under the weather?  (Hopefully the weather you’re under isn’t cats and dogs!)  Or when we meet someone special and we start developing romantic feelings for that person, we might say we have a “crush” on them.  A crush?!  I mean, what a violent way to say that you like someone!  With sayings like these, it’s no wonder that English is such a hard language to learn.

Another kind of odd idiom that we hear from time to time without really thinking about it is the phrase “cutting a deal.”  Have you ever wondered about that phrase?  I mean, it makes sense that you can make a deal, or arrange a deal, or even negotiate a deal.  But what does it mean for someone to cut a deal?

It turns out this phrase actually has some pretty ancient roots – and they’re reflected in our first reading for this morning.  In this passage, we find Abram talking with God in a vision.  God had already told him a while back that he would be the ancestor of a mighty nation – but Abram is (understandably) anxious and kind of doubtful about whether this will really happen; after all, it’s pretty hard to imagine being the father of a nation when you don’t have a single kid of your own – and especially when you and your wife are already well past your childbearing years.  So God makes him a binding promise, a covenant.

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Sermon: Same Story, Different Wilderness

Sunday, March 6, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
First Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 14:21; sermon starts around 21:17)

In our gospel reading for this morning, the Spirit takes Jesus – fresh from his baptism – and leads him on a forty day journey out into the wilderness.  And today, that is exactly what all of our readings are doing with us.  Our texts are full of these themes of wilderness and desert and wandering preparing us to begin our own forty day journey through the wilderness of Lent.  

In our first reading, from Deuteronomy, the Israelites are finally coming to the end of forty long years of wandering in the desert.  They are preparing to enter the promised land of Canaan at long last.  This reading is part of a long sermon that Moses preaches to his people, reminding them of all that has happened up until this point and exhorting them to stay faithful to God in their new lives in Canaan.  Moses wants to make sure that the people remember their history – that they remember where they came from – and especially that they remember how God has been unfailingly faithful to them throughout all of it. 

The first thing he instructs them to do in their new home is to make a thank-offering of the firstfruits of the land, in recognition that their whole harvest is a gift from God – especially since they didn’t plant any of it!  And the first thing Moses instructs the people to say as they make their offering is: “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.”  In other words: Today I declare that God has kept God’s promise.  

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Sermon: First Things First

Wednesday, March 2, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Ash Wednesday
watch this service online (readings start around 9:20; sermon starts around 17:51)
image credit

My dad is a very faithful guy.  He’s a lifelong Lutheran who made sure my brother and sister and I all grew up in the church, and he’s very much a model of faith for me, someone who was instrumental in my own faith formation.  But whenever bad things happen – someone gets bad news at the doctor, or there’s some kind of terrible accident, or some other kind of overwhelming trouble – it absolutely drives my dad nuts that people say, “There’s nothing left to do now but pray.”  “Nothing left to do but pray?!” he’ll say; “Prayer shouldn’t be a last resort – prayer should be where you start!”  

Reading our first reading, from the prophet Joel, I think the people of ancient Judah probably would have agreed with my dad: prayer is where you start.  The Book of Joel begins with some very overwhelming trouble: massive swarms of locusts have devastated the land of Judah, destroying practically everything in their path.  It is catastrophic for their agrarian way of life (not hard for us to imagine here!), and there is a lot of lamenting in the first few verses of the book.  Joel writes: 

…a nation has invaded my land,
powerful and innumerable;
its teeth are lions’ teeth,
and it has the fangs of a lioness.
It has laid waste my vines,
and splintered my fig trees;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;
their branches have turned white…
The fields are devastated,
the ground mourns;
for the grain is destroyed,
the wine dries up,
the oil fails.

Joel 1:6-7, 10

But before getting into any logistical details of how to go about recovering from this loss – or even worrying about what everyone is going to eat in the meanwhile – the very first thing the prophet Joel does is to say to the people:

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Sermon: Ditching the Veil

Sunday, February 27, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Transfiguration Sunday
watch this service online (readings start around 21:32; sermon starts around 28:54)

Today we come to the end of the season of Epiphany.  Epiphany is a season that is all about revelation.  It’s a time in which we remember and celebrate the many radical and surprising ways that God chooses to show up in the world.  We began this season with a star – the star that led magi from the East to the infant Christ, the star whose light revealed to the world the birth of God made flesh.  And today we have this gospel story: the story of the transfiguration.  

There are actually two revelations of Christ in the reading that we have for today.  The first is the obvious one.  Jesus and a few of his disciples go up a mountain to pray and, as he’s praying, Jesus’ face and clothing suddenly start shining dazzlingly bright; Moses and Elijah show up to chat with him; and the disciples are struck speechless with awe and terror.  I think I’ve mentioned before that this is one of my favorite Peter moments in the gospels – this amazing thing is happening in front of him and Peter is like, “Tents!  We should put up tents so y’all can stay here!” – and even the gospel writer is like, “Yeah, he didn’t know what he was saying.”  It’s such an overwhelming experience that Peter is just trying to capture it and hold onto it in some way that he can make sense of.  

But the moment doesn’t last.  Moses and Elijah vanish; Jesus stops glowing; and he and his disciples head back down the hill.  And as they reach the bottom of the mountain, they walk into a scene of chaos.  A huge crowd is gathered there waiting for Jesus, and among them is a desperate father who shouts out, begging Jesus for help.  The other disciples were unable to cast out a demon that has been tormenting this man’s son and he is desperate for help. Jesus scolds his sheepish disciples; and then, full of confidence and power, he heals the boy and gives him back to his father.  And in that moment, Luke tells us, “All were astounded at the greatness of God.”  It’s another moment of revelation.

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A Season for Prayer

[Jesus] came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” 

Luke 22:39-42

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 

Philippians 4:6-7

Prayer was absolutely crucial to the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ when he physically walked upon the earth. Throughout the gospel witness, there are mentions of Jesus stealing away to a quiet place in order to pray, often taking his disciples with him.  Here in these verses from Luke 22, we find Jesus on the very eve of his betrayal, arrest, and brutal execution fervently praying for God’s will to be done.  And Jesus continually urged his followers to be constant in prayer – teaching that is eloquently summed up by Paul in his letter to the Philippians, in which he urges them: Don’t worry about anything, but take everything in prayer to God.

I know it’s the sort of thing you expect a pastor to say, but prayer is absolutely central to the path of discipleship.  And I’ll be the first to admit that I mostly know that this is true because of how much I find myself struggling to stay centered and grounded when my own prayer life is inconsistent – which it usually is.  But prayer is central to discipleship for many reasons:

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